Hill Strategies Research on Arts Participation and Engagement

This special issue of the Arts Research Monitor provides a brief summary of some key issues related to arts participation and engagement explored at Measuring Cultural Engagement amid Confounding Variables, a joint research symposium of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Cultural Value Project of the United Kingdom’s Arts & Humanities Research Council. Arts researchers and practitioners from the U.S. and U.K. convened in Washington for the symposium. Kelly Hill was the only Canadian speaker at the June 2014 event. This issue is Kelly’s synthesis based on his notes from the symposium, as well as those made by Alexis Andrew, Policy and Planning Coordinator at the Canada Council for the Arts.

To read the full articles, click each section header. 

Definitions of participation in the arts and culture
Measuring Cultural Engagement amid Confounding Variables

The symposium tackled some large and challenging questions, such as “what counts as ‘the arts’? and “what do people consider culture?” In many jurisdictions, there has been a broadening of the types of cultural participation or engagement factors measured via surveys. The complexities of cultural participation in a digital world were discussed at the symposium. The importance of places and spaces to cultural participation was also discussed. The complicated reality of cultural participation is difficult to measure.

Arts participation methodology: Surveys or other instruments?
Measuring Cultural Engagement amid Confounding Variables

In an environment of media convergence and digital multi-tasking (with many people paying only partial attention to multiple concurrent tasks), can arts participation surveys capture an accurate picture of people’s activities? Some participants argued that behaviour is observable without a survey, but attitudes, thoughts, and feelings can best be captured by surveys. Others contended that, without benchmark surveys, our understanding of cultural participation would be significantly lessened.

New data sources
Measuring Cultural Engagement amid Confounding Variables

Arguing that current practices are unsustainable, some speakers outlined how “big data” or “organic data” could be combined with sample surveys in order to better track and study human behaviour. Organic data can be thought of as data that are captured as part of other processes (e.g., Google searches, data scraped from websites, tweets, retail scanners, credit card transactions, etc.). It was argued that this type of data, which can be nearly real time, is better at capturing people’s behaviour than their values and opinions. Challenges related to organic data include privacy concerns, the high computing power required to “scrape” records, and the current lack of data mining techniques that could combine imperfectly coordinated datasets.

Use of arts participation data
Measuring Cultural Engagement amid Confounding Variables

Who uses arts participation data? Are the data used by arts organizations to improve their connections to audiences? Are the data connected to arts policy? One speaker argued that many artists and arts administrators have a hunger to better understand the world in which they work, especially the trends shaping demand for the arts. Some noted that involving arts administrators in survey design might improve their use of surveys.

Outcomes of cultural participation
Measuring Cultural Engagement amid Confounding Variables

Beyond simple attendance rates, what can be said of the outcomes of cultural participation? Are there relationships and connections that have broader social impacts? One participant noted that a recent Italian study found a direct correlation between cultural consumption and individual wellbeing. A symposium speaker indicated that Canadian research has shown strong correlations between arts participation and positive social outcomes. The key question of outcomes research, as phrased by one speaker, is “How do we think about healthy places?”


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